She has a lot of stuff. (1)
Nearly all her life she’s been stigmatized by family and roommates as a Packrat. But she’s come to embrace the moniker. In her teen years she began by fancying herself a tragic anachronism, a misplaced Victorian never meant to grow up in twentieth-century suburban California; she cultivated collections of bric-a-brac and abhorred empty spaces like any nineteenth-century incarnation of Martha Stewart. Gradually she has come to know her sickness for what it is: a personal cult of memory and object-worship of which, as long as she strives to preserve the traces of her past, she’ll never be cured.
Childhood possessions, letters, books, records, fabric, old clothing, office supplies (2), lamps, botanical relics.
She can plow through boxes of junk ruthlessly and produce impressive offerings for Salvation Army when the mood is upon her, but faced with a pile of pleasing fabric, she will watch her own hand in horror and abjection as it deposits perfectly useless scraps of velvet in the “keep” pile. Similarly, attractive office supplies (she is partial to Post-It notes in various sizes and pastel hues, Pilot VBall pens, X-Acto blades, binder clips, and protective caddies for this and that) have an unholy power to thwart her attempts at winnowing their ranks. Only under rare circumstances is it possible for her to part with anything given to her by a friend, or anything she owned prior to the age of about sixteen. (3) Nor can she let go of a book or record without tiresome self-wheedling. (“After all, it is warped, plus the cover is shabby, plus I already have it on CD…”)
Barring free weights, books and records are two of the heaviest things to pack and move. At the present time I would estimate her records to weigh 1200 lbs; her books probably 1750. (4) By no means would she consider these collections to be “large.” — Not yet. — She’s still young.
As doom-rock teens enamored with the romance, the ornament and the decorum of another era, she and her friends spent their allowances on more than just Bauhaus records and hallucinogens. They started buying antique clothing and books and ransacked their grandparents’ homes for treasure. As a fledgling Packrat she acknowledged her heavy debt to the Victorians: their fine tradition of sentimental collecting; a linguistic heritage of euphemisms for trinketry (bric-a-brac, knick-knack, hodgepodge); a whole array of furniture developed to contain the clutter (the highboy, sideboard, chiffonier, halltree, mantel, teapoy and étagère, a.k.a. whatnot or omnium); and that pinnacle of junk-collecting architecture, the drawing-room or parlor.
The Victorians were such lucky bastards. She’s had to make do with the tops of bookshelves and dressers; they had, in the parlor, an entire room that existed almost solely for regaling guests with the mishmash of relics and brimborions that showed who they were. Then as now, we let objects confer status upon us; in their case, status meant gentility, composed of many factors, including 1) having impeccable breeding and background; 2) being widely traveled and knowledgeable about the newly fascinating natural world; and 3) adhering to the day’s standards in interior decorating, a job ladies did for themselves as the only form of “useful” work proper society found suitable for them. And until the Aesthetic movement finally swept away the clutter in preference of clean, open expanses, the standards of the day said more was better. Travel souvenirs, art needlework, Bristol glass bottles and vases, wax fruit, dried flowers, seaside souvenirs, painted plates, various family heirlooms, papier maché knick-knacks, biological specimens (ferneries, jardinières, terrariums, aquariums, stuffed birds under glass, aviaries, taxidermied critters and boxes of shells…), statuettes, cuckoo clocks from the Black Forest, albums of cartes de visite, mourning jewelry and sentimental keepsakes of the once-loved and the dead (portrait lockets, bracelets woven of the deceased’s hair, that kind of thing), and a miscellany of novelty objects mass-produced for just this purpose were painstakingly arranged on tabletops, étagères and highboys.
In THEIR YOUTH the SEEDS WERE PLANTED.
As she and her friends gathered and assembled their own versions of the Victorian mass of memorabilia, their collections on display became portals to the past and a locus for their group and individual identities. They learned the stories behind each keepsake and would stand at each others’ dressers and nighttables, worshipping at the fonts of their personalities. As for her own collection of Victoriana and other, more modern relics, it represents nostalgia doubled: nostalgia for a nostalgic time. Whether she has the right to feel nostalgic for an era so far removed from her lifetime is another question, but it’s certain that in Victoriana she finds a spiritual mentor in the art of the Packrat.
That’s just the respectable face of the matter, though; beyond this relatively refined collecting, she practices another more shameful type of stashing away. She just saves stuff, whether it’s a shiny, candylike photo out of a magazine or a darling box of Japanese animal crackers. She has a purpose, of course; she’ll eventually incorporate this stuff into cassette sleeves, epic collages or decorative envelopes. She has file cabinets and trunks full at this point, but she’s not ready to do the processing necessary to justify the hoarding. Perhaps she never will be ready.
CONTENTS of a BOX LABELED “TRINKETS.”
Lace scarves, painted eggshells, locks of hair, mismatched leather gloves cracked with age, a nineteenth-century pocket Bible in Polish, filigreed sterling cigarette holder, rotting lace drawstring purse, sepia photographs of ancestors, discolored glass rods from some ancient laboratory, little leather-bound books three inches square, pressed petals of various species, dried money-plant “coins,” sterling pillbox filled with shiny pebbles, four ornate drawer handles scavenged from an old vanity, crystal doorknob so old it’s worn smooth, legions of skeleton keys, scraps of velvet, tiny gold pillbox filled with loose amethysts, miscellaneous polished rocks (she gave them all names when she was little), her mother’s Madame Alexander dolls and their lavish wardrobes, porcelain teacups and saucers wrapped in lace doilies and tissue, handmade kaleidoscope, funny wooden puzzle box with a hidden marble inside, her own engraved baby cup and spoon, beaded snoods of yore, Great-Grandpa’s schoolboy notebooks, old leather jewelry box, origami animals, old perfume bottles, paper towel dried stiff with an old lover’s nosebleed and wrapped in gilded ribbon, strange biological specimen found on the beach and bottled in old lab flask, crystal light-catchers, beads of mercury in stoppered glass tubes, shattered ruby-glass ashtray, cigar box filled with old letters and tiny dried rosebuds, carnival glass dishes, antiquated tweezers and ornate little nail scissors, old sewing kits, unopened lipsticks from the Fifties, little calendars stamped with Great-Grandma’s name, skunk pelvis, a Freemason’s notebook written in weird shorthand, informational booklet on Man and Wool, loose beads, clear plastic shoeboxes from way back when filled with scraps of pretty paper and fabric, silk scarves, sand dollars, pachinko balls, dress patterns from various decades past, deer jawbones, tarnished silver flatware, archaic textbooks, sunbleached confetti streamers, baby bracelets, Chinese horse made of jade, doll’s tea set, faded cellophane flowers, old coins from everywhere, old pharmaceutical bottles, crocheted gloves, sewing scissors from China, attractive pieces of curled bark and metal shavings…
She only had it for two months. Then she moved the bulk of the junk to the boyfriend’s basement. But when it was hers, how lovely life was.
What she needs most is the ability to teleport her unwieldy belongings to and from a vast bunker at the bottom of the ocean. With her junk in off-site storage, she’d be left free to wander unfettered—to pretend to be that simple-living, monk-like ascetic she occasionally idolizes. Right now, though, she’s living on top of that full basement—that constant reminder, the undertow of all those possessions entreating her to sort, appreciate and ultimately display them. They are alternately a source of comfort to her and one of anxiety and dread.
Her mother keeps telling her that the key to being a well-balanced packrat is proper containment: as if all she needed were one more neatly packed bureau to really organize her life. More furniture, however, is not the answer. She knows the allure of dresser drawers, as well as their insane danger.
SHARED HOUSING; its MAJOR DRAWBACK.
There was a certain embarrassment factor in being told by the incumbent housemate, “You don’t just have a lot of stuff…you have an empire!” as she and her peons hauled load after load of boxes into his already crowded home.
“Your wealth of tchotchkes kicks mine in the butt,” said one admiring flatmate, who had his own magnificent display of peculiar consumer products, like inflatable kiddie toilets. True, some of our heroine’s collections have a cachet of backhand legitimacy: Elvis paraphernalia, including 17 different biographical paperbacks; “cute” racist cultural artifacts of the Aunt Jemima/Li’l Black Sambo variety; glitzy religious iconography; wigs and costumes; 1970s smiley face articles; vintage junk jewelry, and the like.
All the same, considering the sheer volume and multitude of her stashes, she allows herself no solace in the title of Collector.
Her friend, who claims to save everything. In fact he does. Presents the appearance of living an uncluttered life by virtue of extensive remote storage. Not only does he squirrel away, he laboriously catalogs the contents of each box on his computer (a practice that dates back to his early acquaintance with an Apple IIe). Will allow you to peruse this lengthy catalog upon request. Owns boxes o’ boxes. (5) Superstitious about throwing away nail clippings; prefers to bury them outside. (6) Introduced our Packrat to the ideal of infinite storage via a Dungeons & Dragons-style unlimited inventory bag. Perhaps he gains power in knowing his possessions are there if he ever needs them; however, he shudders at the thought of having them any closer, say, in the garage or something. In his storage shed he sees a likeness to the Egyptian tomb, though I’m not sure he believes he’ll need his junk in the afterworld. Maybe he sees himself propped up in his sarcophagus in the storage shed for future generations to gawk at. “Yes, and here lies the man who saved all his ATM receipts,” intones the tour guide, making the voyeurs hush in horror at the thought of it.
Our girl would not want you, Gentle Reader, to confuse her still relatively selective packrat tendencies with the kind of all-out hoarding demonstrated by some of her ancestors. Grandpa stockpiles food, mountains of it. He’s got two fridges, a freezer, and yards of cupboards in the garage to supplement his bursting kitchen, and when he goes to the store he buys seven of everything, puts the bags in the garage and then goes out for more. Yes, it rots there uneaten; no, the family dares not step in.
He also accumulates kitchen gadgets (bagel slicers, ravioli presses, pie weights, grapefruit spoons, et cetera—largely unused), pillows, electric blankets (she once counted 13 of these, still in unopened packages, in his storage shed), toilet paper and paper towels in bulk, and junk mail. (7)
We all have our weaknesses.
GREAT-GRANDMOTHER, or, a PACKRAT GONE WRONG?
Her sister (8) swears Great-Grandmother gave them the packrat gene. (9) She saved TV Guides from decades past, enough cottage cheese containers (some empty, some housing ancient fungal colonies) for a pop art sculpture of heroic proportions, and every damn receipt, bill or piece of correspondence EVER. Her plastic Christmas tree was always up, accruing ornaments year-round. Our Packrat recalls being frightened, as a child visiting that house, by stacks of newspaper swaying above her head, from behind which random dachshunds were wont to spring.
When Great-Grandmother passed away, and after the relatives had finished scavenging the antiques, there was a U-Haul trailer full of odds and ends, four truckloads of Goodwill donations and multiple dumpsters of outright garbage to be dealt with. Up until the last moment, her parents sitting in the cab of the U-Haul honking for her to hurry up, she was scrabbling for that last Hefty bag full of lipsticks, rubber stamps, greeting cards, ancient office supplies, and old photos that would haunt her through her next five moves (one interstate).
In this matter she would like to agree with popular wisdom, which has it that a major factor in the hoarding behavior of the over-70 crowd is the experience of living through the material scarcity of the 1930s. Her relatives’ hoarding of necessities certainly seems rich evidence. However, she herself, a child born and raised in relative plenty, has her own sizable food stash going, (10) and she also stockpiles needful things like lotion (last count—18 bottles), gift wrap (3 large bags and one trunk full), stationery and shopping bags. She must therefore assume that other elements are at work in creating this material neediness in her and in her coevals.
Which brings us to
Certainly packratting is inspired in us by all this insatiable need in the midst of plenty. Now that practically everyone lives off someone else’s constant material consumption, advertisements so incessantly hum around us, and people imbue their clothes and cars with such moral value…it’s not at all surprising that we fear being caught without, that we find ourselves shoring up supplies for—something.
May I add the observation that everybody and their monkey collects something these days—there are people who count themselves proud and avid collectors of vintage bedpans. And the market responds; even TV Guides are marketed as collectible. Maybe Great-Grandma was onto something.
Any American idiot knows you can simulate emotional satisfaction by going shopping. But a true shopaholic’s insatiable spending and accretion of material goods as a defense against emotional pain only cause more anguish through the ensuing financial distress, disapproval from others, shame and guilt. The kinds of items you persistently buy can give your therapist insight into your sublimated desires: If you simply cannot leave the grocery store without buying three baby bottles (and you have no baby), we might infer a longing for familial warmth, mothering or infantile relinquishment of responsibility.
A thrifty sort herself, whose treasured items are mostly inherited or obtained for cheap, the Packrat likes to pretend she is safe from this syndrome and its support groups; it frightens her nonetheless.
Consider the estate sale. And while you’re doing that, she’ll be over here, going through your stuff. So many people (thrift-store fiends, we’re looking in your direction) enjoy the voyeuristic thrill of pawing over someone’s castaway junk, and it’s not just in hopes of finding an overlooked set of Fiestaware for two bucks. We’re looking to find insight into what makes folks tick, to make up stories about their pathetic lives, to put wrist to forehead and sigh, “Oh, the humanity!”
Perhaps our girl saves stuff to show people what she is—as if it were possible for someone to enter her home, grasp a Sergio Mendes record in one hand and a 1930s dress pattern in the other, and slyly cock an eyebrow at the mystery that is her…unveiled at last. Ha!
Let’s assume you’re just an average, mildly neurotic collector of mementos; you keep the standard relics from childhood because you think it’s a hallowed period, and of course your memories of it are frail—even ordinary objects that played a passive role in your development (the TV Matt Wood held onto when he took his first step, for instance) gain a fetishistic value. You pack it all away in storage, and when at last the precious teddy bears, yearbooks and dried corsages are uncovered, they deliver a beam of light into dark memories, so sharp it can provoke tears and laughter unlooked-for.
This is a precious power, because direct access to a memory can be a one-shot deal. The first time someone asked the Packrat what her earliest memory was, she reflected a moment and dredged up a primal image of sitting in her baby carriage with her green bean-bag Froggie friend. The next time someone asked her, she thought back to that scene of the first time someone asked, and the memory of sitting in the baby carriage with Froggie was framed by the remembering and retelling of it. And by the next time someone asked her, that memory was feeling worn around the edges from such frequent use, and the recalled experience had become merely verbal, hollow and without resonance. But if only she still had Froggie, he could transport her back to the very smells and sounds of that carriage ride.
If objects forever carry traces of our experiences with them and possess the power to provide back-door access to memory, the way a smell can evoke an era or mood, it’s no wonder she finds it agonizing to throw anything away.
There are all kinds of excuses to validate the hoarding: She’s saving stuff for the future, in case she needs it someday, like that weaving loom or telescope or wetsuit—what if a sudden career change means she’s got to buy it all over again? Or say she suffers total amnesia. What’s going to allow her to reconstruct an identity out of her experiences better than a complete physical document of her past? Can’t birthday cards, phone-book doodles and other detritus constitute a personality? Okay, let’s say there’s someone, after she’s dead, who wants to find out what made her what she was. At least it would be there for them; there would be a record. Isn’t that the true lure of hoarding? To leave an archive in physical space and in memory that we existed: to fight our inevitable mortality. Now we see how objects become truly magic, when they allow us not only to reach into our own past, but to extend our grasp on life into the future beyond our death.
Here’s the catch: You can’t control the interpretation made of your stuff once you’re gone. Could your belongings misrepresent you or even betray you? Oh, you bet. (11) Makes you want to start editing your belongings, screening out possible negative interpretations, doesn’t it?
It’s something she’s doing all the time in her effort to stop the madness, or at least contain it. Now, when trinkets come into her life, she gets rid of them as quickly as possible, lest she start to charge them with sentiment. Every time she moves she sorts through the boxes, meeting the past face to face in the form of objects she hasn’t seen since the last move. She picks up each item and evaluates it. Does it still speak to her of the past, is there still a scrap of herself encoded in it, will she miss it, does she want to show it to her child someday? And there are occasionally trinkets that don’t make the cut, bits of the past she doesn’t want to recall, items that no longer have anything to say to her about herself. She sets them adrift on the sea of donations to be permeated with new memories by a new owner.
At the same time, she cherishes dreams of an estate big enough to contain it all on display. It’ll be a life beyond boxes, a world where all the objects that define her past and contain the future memory of her are there for the world to see.
And if it all burns? She’ll suffer the sensation of a phantom limb for a while and then get over it. (12) There’s a blissful lightness she feels when she drives a truckload of junk over to Goodwill that’s so delicious compared to the oft-oppressive weight of belongings and memories. How much of this stuff is she going to need in 2050, anyway? (13) Wow, her body’s a rocket to the future, burning away the possessions confining it.
All respect and thanks to Ruth, Betty, Elmer, Katherine & Karen, Amedee, Nan, Tristy, Becky, Marlow, and Matt Wood.
1. Upon helping her move for the fourth time, her gentleman friend dubbed her “the girl with everything possible.” This is somewhat of an exaggeration.
2. An affinity thoroughly explored by many a zine-writer, notably in Joshua Glenn’s “The Lure of Labels, Letter Trays and Lumbar Cushions: A Psychoanalytical Monograph on the Rise in Office Supply Fetishism” from Office Supply Junky.
3. At the risk of sounding hypochondriacal, she would point out the similarity of this feeling to Dr. Steven Phillipson’s description of obsessive-compulsive hoarders “who become emotionally attached to…items or feel that these items hold some emotional significance that reflects a particular moment in time. The person feels that relinquishing the item is in some way tantamount to releasing a past experience or association with a significant other.” Too true, Steve. from http://www.ocdonline.com/
4. It's a crazy thing to take pride in, but she feels a thrill of glee and personal satisfaction in recollecting the time a hired mover (one of three) QUIT HIS JOB halfway through moving her stuff.
5. Our Packrat also saves empty boxes: for her next move, for future storage opportunities, for increased resale value of electronic equipment, &c. See also the ubiquitous “bag o’ bags” in evidence in many packrats’ homes.
6. Cf. the antics of Phil Hartman’s Anal Retentive Carpenter and Chef, who wrapped, tinfoiled, taped, stapled, bagged and double-bagged every piece of scrap lumber or foodstuff before renouncing it to the trashcan, and those of Howard Hughes, who at his death in 1976 left behind rooms full of bottled urine, hair and nail clippings.
7. One hallmark of obsessive-compulsive hoarding is the saving of garbage, like meticulously organized cigarette butts or tidy balls of dryer lint.
8. This is the sister who still has a large milk jug filled with snotrags she and her friends used in mourning their family’s move up the coast a decade ago.
9. I would not want to vouch for the existence of a packrat gene per se, but the genetic predisposition for obsessive compulsive disorder, of which hoarding is one manifestation, has been recognized. (Note that OCD is not the sole excuse for packratting—Eric Fromm promotes the introverted hoarder to the status of personality type; so do Alzheimer’s and senile dementia take their toll on the unfortunates so afflicted.)
10. She counts among the many agëd and extinct foodstuffs in her possession a bag of “lucky” lentils Mom gave her as part of a care package when she secured her first apartment, lo these many years ago.
11. What did she learn about Great-Grandma after the brutal three-day excavation of that teeming house, besides that lady’s inability to throw anything away?
12. Or perhaps not: Lose the possessions, and surely the emotional qualities that create her as the Packrat will manifest themselves in other arenas. Perhaps whatever’s being sublimated into the excessive hoarding is better left unexpressed. Her body will balloon, her sentences grow bloated with unending lists, tangents and footnotes, her very thoughts become objects she frantically grasps.
13. Oh, just the records, the clothes, the first-edition novels, the glorious period furniture, the vintage 1990s magazines, the fabulous and mythical lamps, the foreign gewgaws, the slips of potent scribblings from old friends and loves, the patterns in film emulsion on paper by which she’ll gaze into true and false moments of the past…
Originally published in a slightly different form in Bunnyhop magazine.